“Wait! I can’t sit down without my cigarettes,” says Robert Downey Jr. as he moves toward the next room where an attractive assistant hands him an opened pack.
He returns to the plush black Art Deco sofa in the living room of his pink stucco Spanish-style house above the Sunset Strip, lights up and settles back to talk about the pros and cons of being a “hot property.”
In a few hours he’ll be flying East to promote his latest film, “Chances Are,” and he’s dressed for the occasion. Wearing a blue cotton oversized short-sleeved shirt tucked into pleated black slacks that hang just right on his slim 5-foot-10 frame, he’s the epitome of understated elegance. His hair, still damp from the shower, is cut in the fashionable short-sides, long-top style that allows a few strands to fall engagingly onto his forehead. If his appearance is calculated to reflect the handsome-young-leading-man image, it works.
At 23, Downey has acquired the trappings of success that signify “making it” in Hollywood--a celebrity home (once owned by Charlie Chaplin), a $50,000 automobile, a designer wardrobe, a support staff, financial security and two major films currently in release (“True Believer” opposite James Woods as well as “Chances Are”).
Yet none of this appears to impress the young actor whose goal a year ago was “to make more movies than anybody.” He almost did, racking up 11 of his 15 credits in the last six years.
But this is Hollywood’s image of success, he insists, not his own.
“I’m very happy with where my career is right now. But it’s not my life. It’s an aspect of my life in which I find expression and communication and monetary rewards. And it’s all external. I have to feel good about myself from inside, not because of my work, or the stroking it brings.” He looks down, speaking quietly. “It’s really hard not to fall into that trap in this business.”
Downey should know. He grew up in the business, the only son of singer-actress Elsie Downey and underground film maker Robert Downey Sr. But unlike his father, whose avant-garde work and irreverent attitude kept him on the fringes of the industry, Downey Jr. plunged into the mainstream while still a teen-ager.
He left Santa Monica High School in his junior year and moved to New York City, sharing a low-rent apartment with his sister, Allison, two years older. “We had a few pieces of furniture and posters of Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable for window shades,” says Downey. “I went on every audition in town, supporting myself as a busboy.” He pauses as another staffer puts a plate of scrambled eggs, sausage and toast in front of him. “It was one of the best things that happened to me at that period of my life. If I hadn’t done that it might still be easy to say, ‘I’m Robert Downey’s son and I can be in his films if I want to.’ I might still be putting my self-worth outside of myself, thinking someone else is going to do it for me.”
Instead, he did it on his own, beginning with regional New York theater, followed by off-Broadway roles and a year’s stint on “Saturday Night Live,” where he learned “that live television is the toughest paycheck in the world.”
When the movie roles began coming, they tumbled his way like falling dominoes. John Sayles’ “Baby It’s You” (in which all but one of his scenes were cut) came first, with “Tuff Turf,” “Weird Science,” “The Pick-Up Artist” (with Molly Ringwald), “1969" (with Keifer Sutherland), “Back To School” (with Rodney Dangerfield), and his Dad’s “Rented Lips” among those that followed. Some of his early films were forgettable, but Downey was not. Each role led to another offer until he broke through the teen-flick genre with his two current films.
Emile Ardolino, who directed Downey in “Chances Are,” calls him “a director’s dream. You can give him five directions on the same scene and immediately see them executed and they’re all terrific. Then he’ll turn and say, ‘How about one for me?,’ and give you something equally good you hadn’t even thought of.”
Joseph Rubin, his “True Believer” director, concurs.
“His greatest strength is his ability to move from a dramatic moment to a funny moment in the same character and make it work. Very few young actors can do that. And he’s a terrific reactor. He’s got the greatest eyebrows I’ve ever worked with--the slightest lift and you know what the character is thinking.”
Downey downplays this sort of praise by saying, “I’ve been really lucky with directors in that we’ve all liked each other.”
Yet, fellow actors are equally complimentary. “Chances Are” co-star Cybill Shepherd praises “his depth, not only as an actor but as a human being. He’s not superficial.”
Ryan O’Neal calls him “a natural, a born actor. He doesn’t have a tense bone in his body.”
But Downey wasn’t always so relaxed. During the period when he was filming “Less Than Zero,” a disturbing story about the drug-ridden life style of a group of affluent Beverly Hills teen-agers, Downey was admittedly not unlike Julian, the self-destructive character he portrayed.
“Julian was from a dysfunctional family, medicating all his feelings with people, places and things. And I was doing the same thing. I think we’re all from a dysfunctional environment to some degree and most people are stuffing down a lot of feelings, medicating themselves in one way or another--drugs, overeating, sex, compulsive spending.”
What prompted Downey to change?
“I wanted to live. I realized I was getting nowhere from it. I saw the pain I was causing myself and others. And I also realized that this business does not tolerate self-destruction. They love watching it happen, but they don’t pay you to do it.” Downey pushes his empty plate away and lights up another cigarette.
“But for me it’s more than not using chemicals or not spending wildly or not being compulsive. It’s about seeing where all that comes from and being comfortable with it. I want to feel my feelings. Anything that takes you out of the moment is an addiction.”
Downey notes that his addictions once included wild spending sprees on clothes, gifts and Art Deco furniture. Dominating his living room is a red-lacquered baby grand piano which he plays both for pleasure and to write songs. He is proud of the piano because its purchase is symbolic of a new attitude toward spending: “I saw it in a store window on La Cienega and went in and actually bargained for it.”
Among other things, relishing the present means honoring the day-to-day evolvement of his six-year romance with actress-singer Sarah Jessica Parker (“A Year in the Life”). They met when both appeared in the film “First Born” and have been living together since they were 18.
“Lately, we’ve come to realize that our communion as two people who love one another only works when we pursue our individuality. I now take things easier when work separates us, realizing that this feeling I have when I’m missing her desperately . . . this feeling that I’m not whole . . . is unhealthy. Lately our relationship has become more therapeutic and less dependent in the negative way. If we feel as whole as we can when we’re apart, then when we’re together it makes it . . . uh, well . . . holy.”
Downey gropes, slightly embarrassed at the word, yet open about the sentiment.
“I don’t want anything in my life to be goal-oriented anymore, not even in my relationship with Sarah, though I do believe that if we continue to stay in the now together it’s inevitable that we’ll have children, raise a family--do all the traditional stuff. But I want the joy to come from the process, not the outcome.”
He cites working with James Woods and Cybill Shepherd as just two examples of “joy in the process.”
“With Jimmy I got an indoctrination into the world of kick-ass acting. Talk about being there! He’s so into the moment that no matter what happens (in a scene) it’s right. Jimmy taught me that you have to let down your defenses to build up your character.”
“Cybill had something I wanted--a serenity, an inner peace that enabled her to be easy-going no matter what the external stresses. It was so great to watch her and Ryan (O’Neal) on the set when their children were there. I got to see the little kids in them come out.
“I’m trying to get square with that little kid in me that just wants to have fun and love life. I got tired of not slowing down long enough to see where I was at . . . how’s Robert today; how’s Robert feeling . . . and that’s the greatest gift I’ve given myself in this lifetime.”